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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Mad Men, "The Strategy"

Season 7, Episode 6
Grade: A
Verdict: A stunning hour of television that finally gives some emotional turn-around for Peggy, refocuses the series on the three characters that matter most to its narrative, and naturally inserts its theme into the long running story-arc of its main personas.

Family can take many forms. It can be the nuclear kind, it can be the friends you make as you grow older, or it can be something all the more "non-traditional". Mad Men specializes in these so often, it's easy to take for granted all of the small "family" dynamics that have taken shape throughout the series history. "The Strategy" expertly highlights some of these various pairings that have marked the show's ever-growing tangled web of relationships. 

This episode, in large part, focuses on the key three players of Mad Men's entire run; Don, Peggy and Pete. Sure, everyone else has gotten background plots, and various stirring scenes. But, in the end, the series always returns to this trio, and the final scene reflects just that: with a slow pull back, Don straightening out his "kid brother" Pete and supporting his "daughter" Peggy. This is the family that Don truly wants and the strands that have led us there make for a stunning piece of television.

In the midst of trying to smooth out her team's BurgerChef strategy, Peggy and her Creative underling, whose name I still can't be bothered to remember, interview suburban mothers in the parking lot of one of the restaurants within the chain. The mother, clearly flustered and exhausted, doesn't exactly scream "marital bliss". Her sense of weariness and resignation echoes throughout all of our characters as a sort of compass rose of discontent and family strife, from Don and Megan, Pete and Trudy, Roger's continued woes, and the re-emergence of Bob Benson and his attempt at something more calculated with Joan.

And what of Peggy? She outright states it in the episode, but this interviewing activity brings up a lot of bile. It's hard not to escape the specter of the child Peggy gave away and the life she felt she might have once had, whether it was the life she actually desires or not. That part of her is gone forever, and that remaining emptiness pushes her into a strategic approach with BurgerChef that minimizes the children and focuses on the decision making power of the adults in the room. That's what Peggy knows, having made a conscious decision that she was not ready to become a mother and make that effort to really understand children. It's no wonder we've rarely seen her interact with anyone younger than a junior copywriter, it's doubtful she'd know how to handle it at this point.

Peggy's pitch is weak because it simply isn't well rounded enough, focusing on the "ideal 50's version" of the family, which was tired even at that point. Lou is satisfied with it, but he would be, as we saw last week, he's basically the perfect embodiment of Nixonian ideal (this side of Henry Francis anyway). It's worth noting then that before she "begrudgingly" asks for Don's advice, the moment that their reconciliation begins to take shape, it's Pete that pushes those pieces into place. Yes, the very same Pete that almost sent Peggy's life careening into another direction via said pregnancy. It's easy to forget that such a pairing ever happened, especially given Pete's curt dismissal of Peggy these days ("You know she's as good as any woman in the business!"), but even between the bits of misogyny and general Pete jackass-ness, Pete is actually pulling Peggy from the brink, just unintentionally.

As I've mentioned in the past, Pete has long stood as the most progressive force on the show. It's hard to admit it, given what an often unlikable individual he can be, but it makes sense that this symbol of change in Pete Campbell would be the "accidental chess-master" that saves Peggy from a life of middle management and irrevocable influence by Lou. This then puts Peggy in a position to have to work with Don, readjust her pitch and recognize just what was missing from her work (both in this ad strategy and others) in the first place, the familial connection she held with Don in their mentor-apprentice relationship. It's a wonderful scene to see them both reconnect to a point that we haven't seen them do so since the series highlight episode "The Suitcase", back in Season 4. 

In many ways, this episode is a bookend to that one, as it's instead Don comforting a distraught and regretful Peggy late at night in the midst of a feverish work session, with Peggy coming up with the account securing solution this time around. The difference being, that at this point in their relationship, Don knows it's the right pitch without even a hint of the hesitation that Peggy showed for Don's Samsonite work. Don implicitly trusts Peggy's talent, and even though we've seen tiny moments of pride spring up whenever Don observes her at work, this was the moment that was needed to re-cement their lost relationship and fortify their new-found equal footing. 

That final dance between the two of them to Frank Sinatra's career-resurrecting hit "My Way", is reminiscent of a father-daughter dance at a wedding. Don's girl is all grown up and ready to move beyond his shadow fully, but without rancor this time, wearing his influence with pride. He won't stand in her way, and Peggy has turned a corner into what has to be a more positive territory for this season. If only Duck Phillips could have walked around the corner for Don to knock him out, then all of the references to that referenced episode would be checked off.

Though this was the only story of the promise of burgeoning relationships and family bonds, as stated above, the episode focused a good deal on those that are deteriorating. Don and Megan continue to fall apart regardless of how happy a face they try to put on in public and with each other. The fact that she came to New York to get her things and her desire to meet somewhere that isn't either of their homes (aka neutral ground) is a sign that she's fully ready to move on from him. This can't exactly be bad news for Don, as even when he was comparing good years with Peggy (1955 vs. 1965 to be exact) he cites his getting married in 1965 as a reason why he does not hold that year in high esteem. Many wondered why Megan seemed to so easily get over the issues that plagued them earlier this season in last week's episode, but it's clear that it was a part of denial on her part and she's been working her way into a full-blown separation. Despite the veneer of normalcy, even to the point of having a (almost) quiet dinner together, they're on different planets altogether now. It was a tumultuous four years between them both, and this has been a long time coming. A family with potential for growth is coming to a close.

Pete is in even worse shape personally, while Don was able to semi-successfully balance a new relationship with a broken home and children, Pete has no concept of how to do that. Bringing Bonnie with him to New York, Pete leaves her in the hotel despite her insistence that she wants to meet his daughter. That same daughter who, it turns out, is extremely tentative about him. Pete, in turn, resents even having to spend time with her, but he saves that specific brand of venom for when Trudy gets home. Separation has done nothing to ease the tensions between the two, but given both of their prickly personalities, it's no wonder they don't share the same kind of tenderness that Don and Betty still have for one another. Pete shoving the beer bottle into the cake basically says it all about Pete's attitude about the suburban family life that Trudy wanted them to share. It isn't the sole reason their marriage fell apart, Pete was cheating on her long before that, but it's a perfect bit of symbolism for their own irreconcilable differences. A broken family grows even further apart.

And then there's Bob and Joan. It was only a matter of time before Bob returned, and he's still at the top of his game with General Motors eating out of his palm. After one of the GM Execs (who is also a closeted gay man) gets arrested after being entrapped by a vice cop, Bob is the man he calls to bail him out. In their conversation on the way home, the Exec mentions to Bob a number of details important to his future (the offering of a new position for Bob at Buick, Chevy leaving Sterling Cooper & Partners), the one that's quietly of note is his mention that his wife "understands" his needs. It's from that logical jumping-off point that Bob heads toward his proposal to Joan. 

Bob is the exact opposite of Pete in terms of his family man potential. Whereas Pete can't stand to be around his daughter except for the bare minimum time required, Joan's son sees Bob as a father figure. He's really the perfect match for her, as determined as she is and completely self-made (literally!), except for the little matter of sexual orientation. Of all characters in this series, Joan has generally been the most self-aware, and she realizes a marriage without love, whether it started that way or not, is doomed to failure. One look at Don and Pete's marital issues prove that. Bob doesn't help matters by criticizing Joan's choice of lifestyle, which allows we as viewers to understand just how self-actualized Joan is. She doesn't need to live up to some American ideal marriage, she's already rejected it, putting her on the real life path of the ad pitch that Don and Peggy are about to pitch to Pete. A family of potential (disaster?) is averted.

And so, we return to the final scene, with Peggy, Pete and Don surrounded by the fluorescent lights of a Burger Chef restaurant. The message conveyed by Peggy is that basically "family is what you make it". While our main three players are trying to hash out their personal lives, they have found a way to solace through each other. They are a family in of themselves. In many ways, despite the bickering and belittling, the time they spend together is at this point, their happiest. For now, given their utterly broken personal situations, this is a step in the right direction.

Thoughts to Ponder:

- The Bob Benson Watch has ended...hooray! But does that mean we just got James Wolk's send-off as he walked into the darkness of Joan's apartment building hallway? Say it ain't so!!

- Roger's little sub-plot throughout is looking to have ramifications, as we might be looking at SCP making a powerplay for Buick! Perhaps that's something everyone's favorite closeted ad executive can play a role in.

- Harry Crane is a partner now. Wow! Cutler is his biggest fan suddenly, and this is definitely a continued part of his power play against Roger. But, how about Don siding with Cutler on this vote? Clearly the conversation they had last week plays a big role there.

- Did anyone in the 60's even have a clue what the words "propriety software" meant?

- I was also delighted to see just a little hint at the former relationship between Roger and Joan get a little nod as well at the end, as it's another potential unit that died on the vine.

- I'm not sure Stan is ever not delightful, I especially liked his little "exclamation point" line.

- Poor Ted, out in LA by himself. Useless indeed Harry, useless indeed.
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